Visual Liberation: Where It All Began

Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s “Ways of Seeing”

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Visual Liberation is decolonizing the gaze and conception of movies and celebrating the underdog’s vision of life as it pertains to challenging racism, misogyny, and capitalism on screen…and in life.

The Brecht Forum’s poster for the 2002 Visual Liberation Film Festival: a program of radical humanist filmmaking in NYC.

Visual Liberation (or “Cinematic Decolonization”) refers to movies that are made with the purpose of freeing both the audience and the creator’s minds, freeing them of the shackles of mental oppression, the remnants of a colonized (brainwashed) mind.  Whether they are mainstream, downstream, commercial movies or obscure films — it doesn’t matter. But they must exhibit some kind of genuine revolt within their frames. And they must not be films with a corporate agenda exploiting social unrest and “issues” that are fashionable, which is what Hollywood and advertising have done, rendering true revolutionary fervor obsolete, ironic, or safe.

What we forget – or perhaps never directly acknowledge– is the fact that what we regard as a “movie,” in the traditional American Hollywood sense, is a conception of the Western World’s White Ruling Class. It’s disturbing that, instead of trying to evolve one’s own aesthetic and ideas of how to usurp the rules dictated and imposed by Hollywood filmmaking, filmmakers with a social conscience attempt to make “important” message movies by using the very same rules and techniques and beliefs created by the hallmark of racism and misogyny: Hollywood.

Visual Liberation is at once personal, political, and radical in both and style and content. These are simply movies made as “Protest Films” the way protest music is made and oppose capitalist and xenophobic values (Hollywood) and regards socially conscious cinema as a combination of radical acting, writing, directing, editing, etc

Entire roster/program for the 2002 Visual Liberation film festival at the Brecht Forum, notice the variety of movies.

Visual Liberation is an ever-changing list of films and discussions about movies that could potentially be regarded as literal “protest” films.  The goal of this is to remind ourselves that true insurgent art does (and can) exist within the marginalized and oppressed classes who don’t need permission to make films, that marketing companies don’t own history and socially conscious films don’t need to be dictated to and produced by Corporate Media companies in order to be “important”. 

Dennis Leroy Kangalee has written, theorized, and executed “protest cinema” and now after nearly 20 years later of having the honor of closing the Brecht Forum’s Visual Liberation film festival in 2002, his ideas and ruminations on narrative filmmaking and revolution have developed into a series of sketches/essays that becoming the blueprint for a podcast dedicated to reinstating the venom of insurrectionary art and the danger of ideas/emotions presented on screen; celebrating well known scenes from beloved mainstream films to depictions from the outer edges of our society, removed from the radar of the zeitgeist and always acknowledging the power of those under acknowledged films that rightfully deserve their place and critical assessment -alongside the best of Rap and Punk rock albums.

This is just the beginning. Stay tuned about the podcast and the program notes that go live in September, 2021.

Visual Liberation: Episode 2

Excerpted brainstorms from Podcast Episode Two:

Midnight meditations on flickers, Paul Robeson, the morality of performing in front of a camera, and the embryo of a wobbly cinema

 https://anchor.fm/dennis-leroy-kangalee/episodes/The-Black-Russians-and-Notes-for-a-Wobbly-Cinema-e1ai0em/a-a6v85tr

Episode Two – Excerpts, Notes & Brainstorms from November 19, 2021 12:48AM

*

…I light the candle – and like a film reel running through a projector in the head – I stare at the subtle dips and dives of shadows it tosses – I lay on the floor and I stare up at the ceiling and watch the flickers above the candle dance above the photo of Robeson and Eisenstein…(You wonder what John Berger might have made of it)

The shadows remind me not of the perfunctory Plato’s allegory of the cave – cause in Kangalee’s Cave we’re prisoners of truth, reality is never far from us; if anything we crave fantasy!

But the flickers remind me of the feeling I had as a young artist, the excitement I felt thinking about the plays I’d done…and the films I hoped to one day see.

Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman beautifully conceded that if theater was his wife, film was his mistress.  In some way I could relate – but for me and in my formative conception of Visual Liberation —  it was if art was my wife and activism was my mistress.  But one day I realized:  it is quite possible to  have all your desires in ONE BOOK.

(Speaking of books:  read John Tytell’s “Art Exile and Outrage.” About Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s performance group, The Living Theater and the extraordinary combination of Brecht and Artaud in American political Theater. )

*

Last month I mentioned 3 films – all quite different and none prescriptions of or my conception of a revolutionary film – but each in its own way certainly radical – and therefore an example of Visual Liberation —  Chameleon St, Shadows and Dog Day Afternoon.

I realized later why I mentioned these films:  the black consciousness and majestic anarchism of Harris’ masterpiece coincided with my own aesthetic connection to Cassavetes’ jazz-inspired slice of life method-acting jam on identity, race, art, and friendship. All these themes and ideas seemed to coalesce for me in a passionate way simply by witnessing Al Pacino’s diatribes against the system in Dog Day Afternoon.  I also mentioned Tytell’s book because Malina plays Pacino’s mother in the film…and was a real-life mentor of sorts. Her presence in Dog Day Afternoon underscores its revolutionary fervor, there’s an almost organized Artaudian mood – an impulse to literally riot – within the frames of that one movie by that Hollywood radical himself, Sidney Lumet…

Let’s get back to candles:

These midnight gesticulations on the wall made me think of my trip to Moscow in 1992.I don’t know why maybe it’s because that’s where I first smoked a cigarette and discovered when the glimmer of a candle had burned out: that Pushkin was a black man (the statue of him in Moscow is a site to see)…and that Jean Genet was a prophet of sorts, I had witnessed Roman Victuc’s production of the Maids and instantly realized what an Artaudian experience could be in the theater.  1992: Bush SR was still president. I was 16 – and it was The year I discovered Paul Robeson, Eisenstein and made sense of my visit to the Moscow art theater.

*

American Protest music and American Protest film – Political Filmmaking in a Left-Wing sense; a Wobbly Cinema if you will —

Dylan, Cash, Seeger, Havens, Joan Baez, Odetta, Bessie Smith…Billie Holiday. 

When I mention these American artists what do you think of?

Now, let’s think about this in terms of a specific form of American movies.

 Aesthetic and Ideological Foundation: Micheaux, Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Clarke, Menelik Shabbaz, Fronza Woods, Julie Dash, Michael Roemer, MVP, Pasolini, Kramer, Cassavetes, Ivan Dixon, etc. Within this…underlying all of this is Paul Robeson.

The spirit of Robeson, who insisted you have to be on one side of oppression or the other.  And the artist to him was a moralist who had to fight against abuse, poverty, genocide, and rape.

Recently Rosalie Gancie, artist and publisher in MD, had shared a lovely facsmile of a program circa, 1954-1955 of an announcement declaring a Calypso band at a gathering in support of Paul Robeson who had lost his passport; and the supporting fundraiser – happily endorsed by Charlie Chaplin –she shared the event materials on social media and it was so interesting to see it…and it immediately made me embarrassed at how the Left have shrunk artistically and culturally in POP and in the underground, or the fringes.  

One of the greatest performing artists of the twentieth century and one of the towering figures of the left as well as one its worst ambassador’s, ironically, for cinema.

Tragically Robeson was one of The White Man’s Movie Industry’s grossest unintentional accomplices for the of stereotypes and derogatory projections of black actors in film. He was a prisoner of the white gaze, while knowing full well – in the end, that his revolutionary desires in cinema had been highjacked and betrayed by his trust and belief that most of the white people he worked with in film would enable what he wanted to do for the common man, the working man…and especially the person of African descent. He never came off the way he wanted to in a movie…

 The exceptions are few, but most notably Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (one of the only movies I can watch him in)

 ( I highly suggest you read Susan Robeson’s book about her grandfather’s struggle for more detailed information about this.  One of the several heartbreaking ingredients of his life…)

Because there is very little freewheeling revolutionary spirit and dignity in many of the motion pictures he acted in, it’s hard to watch him at all, frankly, on screen — I think it was Ruby Dee who lamented that she could never watch a movie he was in…and part of this reason is because it is a political and moral choice and vulnerability to perform in front of a camera and/or allow another human being to “capture” a part of you through a lens.  Think about it:  it’s a take.

“Let’s do a take.”

“Can’t take your photo?”

Or “Let’s take your photo.” As if I have it already and will transfer it someplace else?

“We’re gonna do another take. This time when you look at her, try not to blink.”

The Actor has to now open himself up to…what?

Nothing perhaps. Maybe that’s better. A take. Hmm.

As in…”take my soul,” but leave my body in tact? What is taken? Is the Western conception of film ultimately about the taking and capturing? Is it essentially about taming the subject into a ‘frame’ and recording death of the spirit; extinguishing the passion that cannot be contained?

In photography, they even say “Can I shoot you?”

(A riff on Taking, Capturing, & Shooting A Creature, Idea or Feeling With a Camera: The Western conception of film is about more than dominance, it is about conquest and colonizing a subject, a person, an event, a place and sticking a flag into its gut, while declaring the gardeners through to give up their seeds for the camera! From Herzog to Coppola, the film director is the last talisman of the White Romantic Colonizer who sets out to dictate to others what he cannot create in his own home!

When the bourgeoisie locked up and burned down the Shaman’s vision quest – that ran the gamut of every emotion – it scared the French, embarrassed the English, and made the German, Spanish, and Italians suspicious. To the former, language and behavior was about moving up and through a society; to the latin languages and the more insistent Caucasian tribes — it was about using language as both a strong greeting and even stronger goodbye; getting you into the boat and getting you out. Everything in between was tea. Only a Brit with a dumb camera around his neck ominously like a gun with a silencer could ask an Indigenous or African chief he’d just pounded into a deck of boat after having raped his sister (out of sight, of course) – “Would you mind if I shot you?” )

But for a moment consider what Paul Robeson was up against.

Here was this brilliant man, tall, stately, athletic with an incredible voice who was a wonderful stage actor and an even better singer and orator.

(And a remarkable writer, by the way.)

He was light years ahead of himself – and his vision was greater than anyone around him could probably conceive; his wife certainly was a loving accomplice…and he was quite admired by Sergei Eisenstein, whom Robeson in turn, had respect for.  You wonder “Why didn’t they work together?”

 Well, you can certainly bet the USA would never have allowed THAT to happen.  And yes, it was that bad and YES they do have that power (namely cause we give it to them)

The forces that be will always make sure that highly talented, gifted or brilliant people (in any capacity) NEVER work together, collaborate or commune.  They will always try to separate them. 

 *

And now I leave you with this:

“On The Willful Ignorance of Andrei Tarkovsky:”

Mikhail Romm (1901-1971) was a Soviet Film Director and Teacher. His film 

“Dream” (1941) – about spiritual crisis and poverty – was supposedly deemed by FDR as being one the greatest films ever made. In 1956, his student Andrei Tarkovsky made his first film, “The Killers.” It was a student thesis movie. Based on a Hemingway short story, Romm admonished Tarkovsky for having the lack of imagination and sensitivity for shamefully employing an actor in black-face in the movie! Romm told Tarkovsky – who had previously been studying Arabic! – that he had learned nothing about humanity and that he had no imagination. He decried that the young man had defiled the memory of the greatest Russian Poet, Alexander Pushkin – who was black! (Indeed, the film is disappointing in that it reveals the casual racism of the White world at that time via the young and ignorant Tarkovsky. But it’s very telling and revealing that such an “innocently racist” young man would become a deeply compassionate and humane filmmaker a few years later.) In any event, Romm would have none of it, he chided Tarkovsky for being influenced by Fascism and American racism and deemed him counter-revolutionary. In the next 2 years, the young Tarkovsky did a lot of soul searching. Legend also has it that Paul Robeson visited Romm after one of his 1959 concerts at Lenin Stadium (Khabarovsk) when the USA’s ban on his passport had been lifted. Romm refused to introduce the young Tarkovsky for fear of Robeson wanting to see the lad’s first film. I assume somewhere in all this…The great Tarkovsky had learned a valuable lesson and came to understand in the words of King: that there is nothing “more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

 We need to return to the embryo of THE NEED FOR A RADICAL CINEMA.

If you are making a film — Have something more to say than ACTION!

Peace. 

*

https://anchor.fm/dennis-leroy-kangalee/embed/episodes/The-Black-Russians-and-Notes-for-a-Wobbly-Cinema-e1ai0em

Visual Liberation: Mambety Speaks…

A Cinematic Genius warns against the dangers of capitalism…

“We are done. I’m not speaking only about us here in Africa but of humanity, of man… The feeling I have is that we are done for if we have traded our souls for money.”

—Djibril Diop Mambéty,  Director of “Touki Bouki” & “Hyenas,” 1945-1998

Mambetycamera
Djibril Diop Mambety, Senegals’s Rebel Filmmaker 

Most radical spirits and those who wished to “change the world” (a hollow term at this point) have left the arts, incredulous and overwhelmed that the “Arts” have devolved after having been wholly won over by corporate values and American imperialist hegemony.  The bourgeois affectation of middle-brow cinema has destroyed us: “Movies should be intelligent, but not dangerous to the establishment,” they demand. Even worse, everyone from Oprah Winfrey to HBO are in collusion and so 

we all

give in. 

There are very few people on this planet who see cinema as a liberation tool.  Instead, it is fair to say as Mambety lamented, that we have sold ourselves out…and for nothing in return except the specter of shadows and awards from the spectacle. All that seek to keep one enslaved. In this Brave New World, we not only accept this- we want this!

And while these Visigoths have obviously won (knowing full well the impact cinema could have on future liberation politics) – it is the perversion of the mirror we look into that disturbs me. Warped surfaces reflect our obscene desires and most heartfelt delusions. As if Frantz Fanon had written The Portrait of Dorian Gray – the gross image of our soul that hangs in the closet must be revealed and it’s own mask removed. It’s the mask of the mask of the mask that must be removed.

Keep storming the barricades of your imagination.  And for the love (or hate) of man – if you pick up a camera to make a movie have something to say other than “Action!” 

*Djibril Diop Mambety, the darker side of Senegals’s coin (Ousmane Sembene reflecting the lighter side) is the director of masterworks such as Touki Bouki and Hyenas, the only features he ever made. His work is taut, unrelenting and shaded with funereal satire. A radical in every way, he never pretended that life was getting any better and he never looked away from the problems inherent in his own life, Senegal, colonialism and the world at large.

Visual Liberation: Where It All Began

Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s “Ways of Seeing”

Visual Liberation is decolonizing the gaze and conception of movies and celebrating the underdog’s vision of life as it pertains to challenging racism, misogyny, and capitalism on screen…and in life.

The Brecht Forum’s poster for the 2002 Visual Liberation Film Festival: a program of radical humanist filmmaking in NYC.

Visual Liberation (or “Cinematic Decolonization”) refers to movies that are made with the purpose of freeing both the audience and the creator’s minds, freeing them of the shackles of mental oppression, the remnants of a colonized (brainwashed) mind.  Whether they are mainstream, downstream, commercial movies or obscure films — it doesn’t matter. But they must exhibit some kind of genuine revolt within their frames. And they must not be films with a corporate agenda exploiting social unrest and “issues” that are fashionable, which is what Hollywood and advertising have done, rendering true revolutionary fervor obsolete, ironic, or safe.

What we forget – or perhaps never directly acknowledge– is the fact that what we regard as a “movie,” in the traditional American Hollywood sense, is a conception of the Western World’s White Ruling Class. It’s disturbing that, instead of trying to evolve one’s own aesthetic and ideas of how to usurp the rules dictated and imposed by Hollywood filmmaking, filmmakers with a social conscience attempt to make “important” message movies by using the very same rules and techniques and beliefs created by the hallmark of racism and misogyny: Hollywood.

Visual Liberation is at once personal, political, and radical in both and style and content. These are simply movies made as “Protest Films” the way protest music is made and oppose capitalist and xenophobic values (Hollywood) and regards socially conscious cinema as a combination of radical acting, writing, directing, editing, etc

Entire roster/program for the 2002 Visual Liberation film festival at the Brecht Forum, notice the variety of movies.

Visual Liberation is an ever-changing list of films and discussions about movies that could potentially be regarded as literal “protest” films.  The goal of this is to remind ourselves that true insurgent art does (and can) exist within the marginalized and oppressed classes who don’t need permission to make films, that marketing companies don’t own history and socially conscious films don’t need to be dictated to and produced by Corporate Media companies in order to be “important”. 

Dennis Leroy Kangalee has written, theorized, and executed “protest cinema” and now after nearly 20 years later of having the honor of closing the Brecht Forum’s Visual Liberation film festival in 2002, his ideas and ruminations on narrative filmmaking and revolution have developed into a series of sketches/essays that becoming the blueprint for a podcast dedicated to reinstating the venom of insurrectionary art and the danger of ideas/emotions presented on screen; celebrating well known scenes from beloved mainstream films to depictions from the outer edges of our society, removed from the radar of the zeitgeist and always acknowledging the power of those under acknowledged films that rightfully deserve their place and critical assessment -alongside the best of Rap and Punk rock albums.

This is just the beginning. Stay tuned about the podcast and the program notes that go live in September, 2021.

As an Act of Protest: The film that won’t go away…

A film that started with the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999…and resuscitated it’s social relevance and artistic merit itself, pathetically, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.  Death’s energy may kickstart the wheel of protest art but it is the hope of a creative retaliation that that makes it explode….

“When will American cinema catch up to the full-throttle legacy of Rebel music and songs that declaim change and challenge authority?”

                          – Robert Kramer, American Radical Filmmaker (Ice, Milestones)

protest-home-page

When all is said and done

you stand alone with a catalog of memories and actions. And like the Actor, it is our actions ultimately that define who we are, how we choose to fight or retreat. We all feel like the Nowhere Man sometimes but maybe it is not failure or malaise that consumes, but risks that genuinely tried.  Not “nowhere plans” but actual attempts – stabs at the wall, great failures perhaps – but proof one has lived and had thoughts and some passion for SOMETHING.  And, if anything, at least my words can do what I can’t: resist trembling in the face of Capitalism and the force of obedience.  The “bastard literature” which may have given birth to my own madness is one that I claim with glee.  Radical art, protest art, works and ideas that rejuvenates every sense of urgency from the eyebrow to the bowels.  There is no more time for games. This ends it all.  Walk into the valley, the great wash of the sun. turn your back on mediocrity. make art that can’t – but tries – to alter the world.  And when they say you’re hateful, you’re diseased, you’re un-romantic – just let your sigh do the talking.

It is the systemic racism and hatred of the white man’s organized political structure that gives credence to the 2001 film As an Act of Protest which depicts the downward spiral of a Black actor who questions the morality of practicing art in the face of a hostile and  savage world that seeks to annihilate Black people in the United States of America.

After a successful re-emergence of this cult classic in 2015, Speller St Films is preparing to finally release a limited edition of the DVD replete with a special facsimile of the original screenplay and the notes that made up my own conception of ‘Third Cinema 2000: a cocktail of guerrilla film-making and the political stringency of Black and Brown peoples oppressed and colonized throughout the world, who not only are conscious of their condition, but seek to change it by “any means necessary.”  As an Act of Protest is the anti-Spike Lee version of a socially conscious films and attacks racism from the oppressed’s point of view with no irony or pop-art trappings; no advertising hipness or cool slang.  It is meant to destroy the oppressor and all who saddles his gaze with his and uplift the dignity of the radical who fights him.  It is a direct descendant of the gravity of Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,  Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama and downright dangerous Blacks films like The Spook Who Sat By The Door.

Acknowledged by Variety in 2002 as being a “powerful” film that aims to “teach and shock,”  it was heralded by many on the underground and marginalized film critics (such as Kam Williams and Hugh Pearson) who championed the film when mainstream papers refused to address it.  Woefully pertinent and tragically eternally relevant in the racist world we live in, As an Act of Protest is a gritty, poetic, theatrical drama that does what the best conscious hip-hop albums did and what the gnarliest politically-tinged punk albums sought to do:  it speaks truth and implicates us all in the decision-making of how we are going to live our lives.

*

For more information visit: https://dennisleroykangalee.wordpress.com/videos/as-an-act-of-protest/

And Pre-Order your digital copy now!

As an Act of Protest will only be available for streaming until December 1, 2020.

The Cult Classic That Remains the Most Relevant Film Right Now In The USA

“As an Act of Protest – Best Black Movie Nobody Will See This Year.”

                          – Kam Williams, The Black World Today, Nov. 27, 2002

“Powerful…”

                        – Ryan Shriver, The NY Times All Movie Guide (2006)

cairo_in_mirror_copy
Che Ayende, as Cairo, an actor exasperated by racism, who creative growth leads him to become a revolutionary

 

You cannot have a revolution without having an art to go alongside it.  Sometimes that art is living itself, sometimes it’s the expression of the angst through blood. Sometimes the tears mean more in the glimpse of 24 frames per second. Sometimes, often in actual life, there is no time for tears — and certainly no poetry that comes along with it… “Revolutions are not fought in, of, or by poems,” as Umar from the Last Poets warned in As an Act of Protest.  But it certainly helps to have those poems going up into the sky like fireworks…and hoping that their residue settles onto a willing recipient before the final axe falls or before the final step of the American gestalt is taken.  You can’t clap with one hand.  But you can still wield a sword.  Or a pen.

 

 

In order to bring Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s controversial and haunting 2002 cult film As an Act of Protest to a new generation of film enthusiasts, activists, organizers, and those interested in revolutionary expression, Speller St. Films (who brought the world Wilmington on Fire in 2015) will host online screenings of the movie in an attempt to relay the vitality and importance of the film originally made in response to the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999 and unfortunately now – the most relevant independent film, perhaps, in American history in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing and Rayshard Brooks’ execution. The film charts the unmapped territory of the fears, inclinations, and proclivities of conscientious Black Americans who are aware that they are “walking in terrible darkness” as James Baldwin once asserted. The film expresses the angst and racism of a system riddled with racism like a corpse covered in tumors. From hostile bankers and a Theater community entrenched in thwarting the liberatory desires of Black dramatists to the hypocrites of Higher Education to families unable to confront the serious trauma of racism to an unbridled savagery contained within the American police force, Cairo – like a character out of Kafka – has nowhere to turn and the more he dares to open his eyes…the more racism he dares to see. Described once as an “internal Battle of Algiers” and “radical Taxi Driver” (had that film been a progressive movie) — As an Act of Protest is a perfect introduction to Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s art, his admiration for the Black Arts Movement — and a stellar example of an unheralded movement and radical inclination in American cinema and drama that went completely under the radar beginning twenty-five years ago. 

— Joshua Kibuka for the New Black Arts Alliance, Speller St. Films June 9, 2020

Stay tuned for more updates on the release of As an Act of Protest and please visit my page here for more information, clips, and a detailed history of my film…

The Poet & His Passionate Plague: Remembering Holy Madman Antonin Artaud & the Theater of Cruelty

A disaster is when you wake up tomorrow and everything you knew has changed; a nightmare is when you wake up and you have to justify and explain your anger to your oppressors as they beat you.   

Unlike a plague a social cataclysm is far worse because the oil of the machinery keeps running.  Fascism rests on nationalism and maniacal adherence to preservation of racial identity and hierarchy and a defense of that order, it is a swift, direct and organized violence.  Massacres are surprising upswells of homicidal urges; genocides contain the celebration of racism and all its devilish rituals, they are capitalist perversions gone amok, they are conscientious slaughters that expect you to pay rent on the land you’re being executed on. When the bureaucracy is still in tact you don’t have Fascism (fascists don’t care for their enemies taxes) you have ‘Atrocity Exhibitionism’: murder in the first degree, things may feel chaotic where in actuality they are all well choreographed.  Even what we come to view as science, and nature and luck — all collide under the ominous shadow of State Carnage.  In the corners, swelling — are all the desires of artistic paroxysms which are waiting to explode, to actually combat and taunt the sword…with a pen. When a plague rears its head – it is a sign that something else is occurring.  It is here that the Theater has an opportunity to shine but quite often it doesn’t.  Not because it can’t but because the virus of racism usurps the potential for not only a catharsis, but the hope for a direct expression of the angst of the oppressed and all who find themselves crushed under the boot of the state.  The only way to fight it is to enact a catastrophe upon the plague itself.  And that is nearly impossible when a nation becomes a mass of spectators and collectors of awful visions as opposed to creators of them.  

Poverty porn. Lynch porn.  Snuff films.  Bulleted brains. Crucified throats. An asthmatic at midnight.  Skeletons at the door.  Take your pick.  

The New Millennium scourge now, although always uncertain, insistent and insidious, is more sophisticated than the bubonic plague and more nefarious than the Capitalism of the 20th century cause it is one we enable with our knees…

(We have sowed the seeds

of Kitty

Genovese)

*

The responsibility is on us – it is on visionaries, artists, revolutionary Leftist activists, humanitarians, it is on good citizenry and that is something latent in many people because  the answer’s not going to come from a place that the government mandates or a site that the internet hosts.  It will not come from endowments from the sky or in the form of a Netflix series.  It will come from us.  Crisis, catastrophes, holocausts – are survived and illuminated by those untangling themselves from the web.  WE have to figure this out on our own, we have to move forward.

*

With the pandemic on the mind – and the reminder of white violence against black bodies clutching the spin of the world at the moment- amidst an alarming death toll —

— and the macabre glee that the media seems to encourage – a sort of digitized schadenfreude – my mind has constantly been dreaming and returning to the past and some of the hallmarks of my own creative inspirations…When I was most free, at my most dangerous dynamic and draconian.  When electricity still surged through my veins.

The work of Antonin Artaud deserves great appreciation in any time in this century, but particularly now because of the Corona Virus and the racism that has been unleashed as a result of it, intertwining themselves into a plague like no other – and because the theater itself is a dead organ which no one has the courage or the impetus to actually want to bury.

Artaud was a French surrealist (although he later broke with the surrealists) and was a maverick of the European arts scene in the 1930’s, he was noted as a superb actor (and acknowledged for his fierce classically handsome features: acute cheekbones and intense eyes) and appeared in Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc as the Monk – easily one of the greatest works of 20th century art ever created.

Artaud-Dreyer
Artaud as the Monk in Dreyer’s overwhelming masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc

Artaud was an even better poet and writer; a brilliant thinker and the creator of the ‘Theater of Cruelty’, a theater he felt that would impel mankind to acknowledge his weaknesses and strengths and reinvigorate the human spirit to battle injustice, bourgeois malaise, Westernized imperialistic values, and re-connect not only the East and West – but the body and the spirit.  his theater was a physically demanding and emotionally violent one, a theater that relied on literal blood sweat and tears; a theater that was based on saliva and the serious intention of changing the audience – meaning the world.  He believed if the theater could act as a plague onto the audience – we would be healed.  If you could feel the horror of oppression on stage, actually feel it in your bones as an audience member – you would be forced to change society.   Confrontational, sweaty, and urgent; nearly impossible but blisteringly inspirational: Julian Beck & Judith Malina’s Living Theater (The Brig, Paradise Now), LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s Black Revolutionary Theater (The Toilet, Dutchman, Slaveship)  and rock bands in the sixties like The Doors (“The End,” “When the Music’s Over”) —  were heavily influenced by Artaud and are probably the most practical examples of his nearly impenetrable ideas.  Even the heartbreaking eyes of Rene Falconetti who plays Joan of Arc in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc was no doubt influenced by Artaud’s notion of bodily insurrection: her eyes give us a revolution within her face, compelling the entire screen to protect and save her from her murder. 

For a mainstream example in 1970’s-80’s cinema, watch Pasolini’s Salo (or 120 Days of Sodom) or Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon — the sheer force and commitment to revolt in Al Pacino and Judith Malina’s performances exude a sense of what Artaud hoped for his actors to convey.  Although accused incessantly of “agit-prop” and being “too angry” for middle-class cinephiles my own 2001 guerrilla movie As an Act of Protest , an ‘anti-Sundance Independent film’ contains a palpable rage and incurs an Artaudian spirit in the last quarter of the film, where I meld Franz Fanon and Antonin Artaud into a theatrical mise-en-scene which spreads on the screen like a spark kindling before an imminent insurrection against racism….by metabolizing Artaud’s wishful theatrical rage…we find our way to Fanon’s cathartic ending.  It is not mere revenge we are after, it is healing.  The erasure of trauma.

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Break on Through: The Doors’ Jim Morrison was heavily influenced by Antonin Artaud.

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The Living Theater’s anti-Military 1964 play “The Brig” was a crystallization of Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. The government forced them off stage and out of the country…

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Hollywood Revolt: Artaud & Method Acting.  Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon”, fueling some of the greatest anti-police screen acting in the history of cinema…enough to incite a riot. 

Antonin Artaud is one of the Forgotten men relegated to the desks and journals of aesthete frauds and smug pretentious theater historians who, like the mainstream media’s imprisonment of the word liberation and revolution- try to keep Artaud confined to an intellectual ghetto know that has somehow traversed everything from so called experimental theater to pop new wave music.  Yet Artaud remains – for the most smug Baby Boomer theater historians – a chic prototype of the great mad poet who suffered in the asylum not to free the bodies and minds of the people – but to give credence and legitimacy to MFA and graduate students who choose to type about the past as opposed to writing/confronting our present and therefore create a future.  Artaud’s desire to overturn repressive systems, rebel against the hatred and imperialistic order of European governments, and wish to author a completely new language for the theater based on cries, screams, and shouts of the highest order is often met with mockery, denigration, and flippant irony suggesting that revolution of the body politic, human soul, and spiritual outreach is not impractical but amateurish and the result of a deranged mind.

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Artaud, the Actor about 1920 [from Jack Hirschman’s 1965 Artaud Anthology by City Lights Bookstore]
Antonin Artaud is a forgotten man because those who were most inspired by him died as he did, mainly, and those perhaps like me – those of us who swung and licked up the crumbs of the revolutionary cultural  feasts that exploded in the 20th century—have suffered badly exploring in the dark, often breaking our own legs as we attempted to find the stairway up to the bedroom but instead tolerated the crevice between the final step and the landing, unsure of what we might find if we went

All

The

Way

Like the man looking for his keys under the streetlamp ON THE OPPOSITE side of the street…we question and wonder, we stall and procrastinate. Like Hamlet, we retreat into our well plumbed brains holding on to the gasp that might just release that emotional molotov cocktail we are ashamed to throw.  Unlike Hamlet, we have to spend more time enacting the destruction of the oppressor, not debating it.

Artaud resonates because his hallucinations were not just real, but painfully genuine.

He was a drug addict who suffered before and after entering an asylum, a man who wrote perhaps the greatest essay on van Gogh and the real meaning behind suicide; the first Anglo European male surrealist to declare a new form of theater while simultaneously denouncing colonialism, brutality and racism, Western provincialism…and the deep deep holiness of the Original Peoples (read his Conquest of Mexico play which excoriates the Spanish conquistadores and devises a play in which in a psychedelic reversal of history:  the Indians righteously defeat the Spanish racists and I guarantee you will scratch yourself trying to figure out what happened to revolutionary anti-colonialist  people in the theater and why are there no Anglo-Western theater poets like this today?)

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Rage Against The Machine: An Artaudian moment in “As an Act of Protest” where the main character destroys the TV which frames his oppressor – The Fascist Mayor – as a virtual omnipotent entity.

He was a genius because he saw all that he could not somehow achieve and actually expressed that; he was a seer who had the temerity to recognize – in brilliant hallucinations- both his own abilities and desires as well as his limits and failures. Like Rimbaud he knew his death lay in the impractical reaches of his own art. Unlike Rimbaud he did not commit suicide of the mind or spirit (as Rimbaud did at 19 by giving up poetry to become an arms dealer) but he waved his own white flag as I now do, as we all must learn how to do.

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Artaud, after shock therapy treatments and his time spent in a Rodez mental institution. 1946

There is strength in concession. It is not surrender. It is admitting simply the truth. And sometimes the bad guys do win.

Or rather

The good ones.

Do.

Lose.

*

Read his words.   If he doesn’t make you want to form a theater of revolt than I don’t know who will.  Read his essays.  If you don’t tremble inside it’s not cause you don’t understand his brilliant use of language or the intensity of his visions — it is, perhaps, because you are too far removed from your imagination or your soul.  Sometimes both.

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My 1997 production of “Dutchman” jolted the MTV generation with this Artaudian rendition of Baraka’s masterpiece with Damon Gupton and Morena Baccarin (courtesy of HERE Theater, NYC)

I hope to convert you immediately, but that is highly unlikely.  Antonin Artaud is dense and mysterious, alchemical and concrete, surreal and quotidian, spiritual and political.  To read Artaud is unlike any other experience, he is one of the few poet-philosophers of our time who actually embodied his ideas, whose imaginative thrust outdid the corpuscles of his own body. 

His words live and breathe on the page even if they could not find their way on the stage.  Proving to us all that:  the art is not in the “final product.”  It is in the germ. 

*

Excerpts below from “The Theater and the Plague” by Antonin Artaud, from The Theater and Its Double, 1938.  (Translation from French by MC Richards, Grove Press, 1958)

*

“Once a plague is established in a city, the regular forms collapse.  There is no maintenance of roads and sewers, no army, no police, no municipal administration. Pyres are lit at random to burn the dead, with whatever means are available. Each family wants to have its own…”

“The dregs of the population, apparently immunized by their frenzied greed, enter the open houses and pillage riches they know will serve no purpose or profit.  And at that moment the theater is born. The theater, i.e., an immediate gratuitousness provoking acts without use or profit. “

“But whereas the images of the plague, occurring in relation to a powerful state of physical disorganization, are like the last volleys of a spiritual force that is exhausting itself, the images of poetry in the theater are a spiritual force that begins its trajectory in the senses and does without reality altogether.  Once launched upon the fury of his task, an actor requires infinitely more power to keep from committing a crime than a murderer needs courage to complete his act, and it is here, in its very gratuitousness, that the action and effect of a feeling in the theater appears infinitely more valid than that of a feeling fulfilled in life.

Compared with the murderer’s fury which exhausts itself, that of the tragic actor remains enclosed within a perfect circle. The murderer’s fury has accomplished an act, discharges itself, and loses contact with the force that inspired it but can no longer sustain it.  That of the actor has taken a form that negates itself to just the degree it frees itself and dissolves into universality.”

“If the essential theater is like the plague, it is not because it is contagious, but because like the plague it is the revelation, the bringing forth, the exteriorization of a depth of latent cruelty by means of which all the perverse possibilities of the mind, whether of an individual or a people, are localized. 

Like the plague the theater is the time of evil, the triumph of dark powers that are nourished by a power even more profound until extinction.

In the theater as in the plague there is a kind of strange sun, a light of abnormal intensity by which it seems that difficult and even the impossible suddenly become our normal element…”

“The theater, like the plague, is in the image of this carnage and this essential separation.  It releases conflicts, disengages powers, liberates possibilities, and if these possibilities and these powers are dark , it is the fault not of the plague nor of the theater, but of life…”

And the intoxicating, nearly impenetrable,  closing paragraphs which never cease to raise the hairs on the back of my neck: 

“The theater like the plague is a crisis which is resolved by death or cure.  And the plague is a superior disease because it is a total crisis after which nothing remains except death or an extreme purification.  Similarly the theater is a disease because it is the supreme equilibrium which cannot be achieved without destruction.  It invites the mind to share a delirium which exalts its energies; and we can see, to conclude, that from the human point of view, the action of theater, like that of plague, is beneficial, for, impelling man to see themselves as they are, it causes the mask to fall, reveals the lie, the slackness, baseness, and hypocrisy of our world; it shakes off the asphyxiating inertia of matter which invades even the clearest testimony of the sense; and in revealing to collectivities of men their dark power, their hidden force, it invites them to take, in the face of destiny, a superior and heroic attitude they would never have assumed without it.  

And the question we must now ask is whether, in this slippery world which is committing suicide without noticing it, there can be found a nucleus of men capable of imposing this superior notion of the theater, men who will restore to all of us the natural and magic equivalent of the dogmas we no longer believe.”  

                                                                                                    — Antonin Artaud, 1938 

Black Struggle, White Hustle: What Journalist David Zucchino Stole From Filmmaker Christopher Everett…(and Black America)

The Assassination of the of the Conscious Black Filmmaker & The Sins of White Journalists – pt. 1

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In 2015 I was invited to participate at a Discussion on Black Futurist Art, Ferguson, and Racism with other black educators, artists and independent arts advocates.  Disappointed with the same old tired clichés about African-American existence in America and the struggle to combat racism effectively, I declared to everyone’s chagrin that “If Black lives matter then we should support our living artists.”

I was then – and remain now – a staunch believer in the fusion of radical activism and radical artistic expression, I wholly believe that the key to beginning any progressive step towards a better, deeper, and more fully realized humanity resides in the vision of the artist.  It’s up to the activist to make the vision practical.  But a lot of people don’t like to hear this or confront this because it puts a lot of responsibility at their feet,  the naked truth is always hard to confront.

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Christopher Everett, director of Wilmington On Fire about the 1898 Racist coup in North Carolina – which was released 5 years before David Zucchino’s much heralded book on the same subject.

Black lives matter only when white people say they do.  In America, Black lives are only mourned never celebrated.  Our victimization has become fetishized,  our willingness to take action against oppressive and Fascistic behavior has been reduced, and our culture – the defining qualities of our own folkways – has been given up, sold off and “shared”  (that is how it is described) by the entire world.  Our pain, suffering, and trauma  has taken on such inter-stellar resonance that nobody actually responds to Black peoples oppression the way they should.  While the Jews always retained control of their own horrifying memories,  Blacks still in 2020 have to ask for permission.  Permission to tell our own accounts, to share both acts and facts, and to illuminate our past torment.

Nowhere is this more obvious than when white journalists try to assert authority over the experience of Black suffrage and reshape it as a “morality play” for white mainstream audiences.  This not only continues to imply that the “human experience” is NOT universal — unless relayed by a white person, specifically a white male — but that no one will care about America’s racist history or the trauma endured by Blacks unless White writers bring attention to it. It’s a catch 22 situation and a tradition as well.

Regardless of any good intention White journalists, patrons, teachers, critics and those manning the boat of ‘Cultural Importance’ have always appropriated and used the history, talents, art, folkways, and ideas of Black Americans — often developed in spite of their bondage and condition as political prisoners in the United States.

Pop culture is a perfect example and while I don’t have the wherewithal to go down the rabbit hole of the sordid history of Culture Vulture-ism in American popular entertainment and art (Al Jolson’s terrifyingly racist deification of Black-face performing, White pop acts co-opting Black rock & roll, MTV vaudeville acts like New Kids On the Block or Justin Timberlake  – the list goes on and on) — it has to be stated that white journalists love a good “story” about racism that they can share because it not only puts them into a moral center they feel they can own it puts them in a position to make money off a political situation that their forebears have created. In a perverse way it is brilliant. Whites write books and make loads of money on the Lecture Circuit giving their two cents about racism and enacting a disingenuous concern; feigning outrage over the Terrorism and sadism their  the founding fathers  committed — all the while ignoring the philosophical, academic, artistic and political contributions Blacks have mined on the very same subjects. And while we look for allies, Fugazi White Liberals look for angles.

The establishment is venal not cause it is prejudiced against certain groups or exploits others or glorifies torture or hates women. It is corrupt because it rewards White people who steal “the Black man’s thunder” and those who peddle and hustle the underbelly of the American empire in the name of “social awareness” and history.

The racist paternalism inherent in publishing and academia actually leads the rest of the culture in this regard, it helps to dignify that maltreatment black musicians and screenwriters for example by trying to legitimize the spiritual grand larceny and cultural embezzlement that white journalists and historians gear up to commit.  They are base cultural tourists who, under the guise of education, commit intellectual imperialism.

If America is a cultural melting pot (it is) and if the keys on the piano are black and white (it is) — than the majestic fusion of these differences  can unite to celebrate their singular existences as well as their similarities and THIS is how we learn. But that is an idealized intercultural society whilst we live in a racist multicultural society that is mandated by the very people we all claim we hate – but who themselves happen to claim that they are our friends.

I can speak for myself, I don’t need a white man to do it for me.

Christopher Everett blew the lid off the history and story of the Wilmington holocaust in 2015 when his groundbreaking independent film Wilmington On Fire – a documentary – hit the streets and theaters after the most successful screening in the Cucalorus Film festival’s entire history.  Since then the film has been taught in major universities,  used as part of cultural-enrichment sensitivity training course for North Carolina police officers, was discussed by Congress in a hearing on reparations, Everett  himself has become a well noted independent film guru, the founder of his own distribution/production company and something of a new wave folk hero in North Carolina.  So how could this NY Times Pulitzer Prize winning journalist (and graduate of North Carolina University) David Zucchino not know who Christopher Everett is or about Wilmington On Fire which came out nearly 5 years before Zucchino’s book Wilmington’s Lie was published?

How could mainstream publications and outlets pretend they don’t know who inspired Zucchino and what initiated the genesis of his desire to research the occurrences of 1898 in Wilmington?

Simple. Cause Everett’s Black (and conscious, which is always threatening to the establishment) he is easy to rationalize away. He is also a Black radical filmmaker who conscientiously views and uses cinema as a liberation tool.  Period.  And he knew that simply taking the lid off this part of history was revolutionary in itself.  White people cannot have or accept Blacks who see truth not as a profession but as a calling —  to ever be the at vanguard of mainstream education or knowledge or aesthetics;  for a treason or sin to be understood it must be conveyed through a white man’s eyes. And mouth.

It is the same thinking, albeit a slightly different context no less insidious, that White music producers had when they stole Black music and rendered more “intelligent” and “safer” palpable soft-core pop versions of Black rhythm and blues songs for White Americans to consume. They live a xerox reality, not a doubled one as the oppressed do but a low grade facsimile of the ideas and feelings that were first uttered and created as a result of Black suffrage.

From Amazing Grace to Big Mama Thornton’s hollers  to the way brass instruments were played to how the guitar became a tool of liberatory audio terrorism to nearly every recognized slang word of the past 90 years to fashion to sports — Blacks have ignited ideas before the white man ever conceived and later packaged and sold them.  This includes our perspectives and realizations of history, our uncovering of truths.

Whites who cling to the Establishment – like the people of color who cherish it  — are not willing to admit their crimes and for all I know they may not even see their crime. Blacks have been erased and ghettoized literally and figuratively in the USA for 400 years.  I can’t expect 400 words or hours of my ranting to resolve this.

Christopher Everett hails from Laurinburg, NC and is a phenomenal filmmaker and film producer. A tenacious and conscientious producer, he doesn’t believe in the exploitative and wasteful capitalist approach to film production.  I refer to him as my generation’s Roger Corman, although his cultural contribution will far exceed Corman’s.  Time will prove me right. Because he does so much everyone think Everett has a lot of money.  They seem to ignore the fact that he, like virtually every other peasant in the world (I use that term affectionately) – HAS to get up every morning and pay the rent.  In addition to holding down a full-time job with Full Frame Festival in North Carolina (the first African-American ever to do so) he organizes different ideas and approaches to the world and to art; he tries to find new ways he and his artist friends can make a living, he tries to figure out trends and how to create ones, forging ideas upon other filmmakers and the general public whenever he has access to them.  Like me, he is an outsider and loner by birth,  unlike me — he is a Cinematic MC, an impresario of sorts.  He is currently at work on two separate documentaries, a narrative; he produces art shows, cultural events; he works in conjugal with NY based filmmakers Brian Alessandro and Vagabond; he spent a whole year restoring and re-contextualizing my 2001 controversial drama As an Act of Protest — granting it new fresh screenings, introducing it to a whole new generation and enabling the film to be declared a “cult classic.”  This got him into trouble (the movie, which is about the psychological effects of racism & police brutality and the Black impetus to revolt was literally banned by the Giuliani administration in 2002)  but he never looked back.  When I asked him why he wanted to do this, he took umbrage.  “Come on man, your film is important, it needs to be seen and re-evaluated,” he remarked in his cool low-key Laurinburg drawl.  And he painstakingly worked to transfer the original movie from its PAL European source to North American NTSC so that we could make DVDs.  He used his own money and lost money on me several times.  His belief in me, in cinema, in ideas, in wanting to help the Black community en masse is astounding and humbling. He works in the trenches cause that is where he is most comfortable and most honest.  He deplores Hollywood hucksterism as much as he despises phony Academic intellectuals who make money off revisiting the pain incurred by Black Americans.  These are part of the reasons why the Establishment will not accept or support him.  And they are also part of the reason why the so-called independents and the “everyday Joes” don’t support him.  Everyone is afraid.

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2017 news article announcing Everett & Speller St Films’ restoration of “As an Act of Protest,” my controversial film that has become a staple of Everett’s modus operandi.

I don’t care about White people who won’t take three seconds to consider my point of view here, I’m concerned with the Blacks who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome and do nothing but make excuses for “well-intentioned” White academics,  foolishly believing that these “good Caucasians” are actually trying to help bring awareness about racism.  White Americans do not need to be told about their racism or their racist past.  They know it like a lion knows its own roar.

There are and will be more people who defend Zucchino’s actions as there will always be those partial to ivory tower transgressions and those that love to mention The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison as the “greatest American novel ever written.”  Not cause they understand or appreciate the warnings and meanings implicit in the book because, simply, they want Black Americans to feel and see themselves as invisible.  Once this is accomplished they can own your suffering, your ”narrative”  as the zeitgeist prefers to say.  There is no narrative because there was no author, only savagery and treachery that grows like a virus.  Racism itself is a kind of virus, a poison.  These words are the continued kindling in the search for an antidote.

What is important to remember here, however, is the racist patriarchal sense of entitlement and the gross indecency that the bourgeoisie display when itching for a new hustle.  Of course what better way than to crib from the Black American community?  Zucchino is well-heeled and rubs shoulders with all the right people in the Literary and Journalism world, I would bet too that he has never had to self publish or take a financial hit when considering what and where to publish.  Conversely, Everett is a working-man,  a proletariat filmmaker — he comes from a hard working North Carolina family that has has had its ups and downs like everybody else and he has known the face of poverty and struggle as an artist and cultural historian unlike Zucchino.  Everett made Wilmington On Fire at great risk to his own personal health,  I highly doubt Zucchino could say the same of his book-writing.  Has Zucchino received death threats or ever been concerned about his family due to the truth he dared to disclose about American racism?  I doubt it.

 

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Pulitzer Prize winning David Zucchino author of Wilmington’s Lie who, I believe, watched and studied information in Everett’s Wilmington on Fire and yet refuses to cite or credit Everett as a source or inspiration.

So let’s not be fooled.  We as Black people need to stop begging for the White establishment and all the organizers of the Ivory Tower to notice or pay attention to us.  We need to pay more attention to ourselves, we need constantly support ourselves.  That in and of itself is the very first step towards a cultural renaissance,  a step towards self-transformation.  How does one ascertain the criterion of the cultural gatekeepers?  It’s not who they promote.  It is who they don’t.  

White people see you clearly. That’s why they can delete you. One has to exist in order to be erased or moved or forgotten. To ignore is a verb. It is not passive. Like betrayal or murder it causes lacerations unseen that float out into the ether…someone always knows what you did. Why. And how.

And while ghosts may not stop Zucchino from continuing this sick charade, my words can at least act as a warning as a traffic sign might.  However in Zucchino’s car — in the universe he drives in — “Deer Crossing” is synonymous with “Artist Expressing” or “Black Man Walking.” And in that world the sign prompts you to drive faster and not slow down.

So let’s just move on and cross Christopher Lamont Everett off the list.  Another Black man killed.  Who cares? Isn’t that why we exist anyway?

Just ask Georgia.

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Wilmington On Fire is now available on streaming! 

Vimeo On Demand: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/wilmingtononfire 

Wilmington Was On Fire Before David Zucchino…

This is a reprint and slightly different version of an original essay published June 1st, 2016.  It has been re-posted here again as a result of the conscientious effort to dismiss Christopher Everett and his extraordinarily bold and revolutionary film-making and cultural contribution to the education of the history of USA, specifically the state of North Carolina.  Because he is Black, Everett’s miraculous accomplishments with this film alone — it brought to national attention the post American Chattel Slavery-racism of the past that always lurked in the USA, it found its way into Congressional hearings on reparations – yes! – and is even used to try to ‘teach’ and inform the Police Officers in North Carolina what Black Americans have endured just in that one state alone.  David Zucchino, a White American award winning journalist (whatever that means) – has a new book out (“Wilmington’s Lies”) that for the white mainstream — supposedly reveals this little known travesty and holocaust of American history — and the subject itself is treated as if no one had known or explored this incident before.  Once again,  the Black man gets no credit – and not only that…but WE don’t do anything about it.  Zucchino himself refuses to acknowledge, credit, cite or discuss Everett’s film Wilmington On Fire despite the fact that nearly everyone on the street knows that Zucchino has not only seen the film and viewed it, but that it instigated his own investigation into the history of Wilmington and the racist coup and bloodshed that transpired in 1898.  Everett is proud that he has helped to agitate other historians and journalists and writers — and yet instead of seeking an alliance, they choose to pretend Everett and other Black independent researchers and artists who do controversial and dangerous work — don’t exist.  Well that’s funny to me.  I am sure the IRS and the good people of Wilmington know Mr. Everett and his film exists.  I know the Universities of North Carolina and throughout the United States know that Mr. Everett and his film exists.

White people constantly and consistently base their sociological explorations, historical investigations into race and racism, and their understandings and approach to music and understanding — off of the sweat and blood already spilled by Black activists, artists, laborers, and the Beautiful Unknowns who have simply exhausted their own humanity into model templates for “good citizenry” and yet…who gets the acknowledgment, kudos, support, critical attention, financial support and mainstream attention?  The Independents, the outsiders, the mavericks, and the revolutionaries fail every time this happens.  Shame on us.    

                                                  — Dennis Leroy Kangalee, May 20, 2020

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A meditation on Christopher Everett’s revolutionary documentary film Wilmington On Fire

Christopher Everett’s independent film “Wilmington on Fire” is a stunning movie about the racist massacre that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina at the end of the 19th century when a mob of whites burned down Black businesses in downtown Wilmington and either killed or exiled its Black citizens, threatening death to some of the Black property owners if they even thought about returning.  With a passionate cast of interviewees, Wolly McNair’s arresting visual reproductions of some of the events, a stellar soundtrack produced by Sean ‘Oneson’ Washington, and a jam-packed history and humanities lesson in a sobering 90 minutes, this is a wholly personal and consciousness-expanding documentary told in a direct, unpretentious, and intimate way about a genocidal act whose impact still reverberates today…

White American racists shoot Black American citizens of Wilmington, NC on November 10, 1898 in one of the swiftest acts of genocide in American history. [Courtesy of Speller Street Films; artwork by Wolly McNair]
White American racists shoot Black American citizens of Wilmington, NC on November 10, 1898 in one of the swiftest acts of genocide in American history. [Courtesy of Speller Street Films; artwork by Wolly McNair]
 

Malcolm X used to bemoan Black America’s pathological loyalty to the Democratic Party.  This perverse agreement to remain supportive of the Democrats was sealed of course with President Johnson’s skillful passing of the 1964 Civil Rights act, the landmark piece of legislation that deemed discrimination of any kind illegal in the USA. What is most ironic, of course, beyond the fact that since then non-Black immigrants have actually used the gains of that bill and the Civil Rights movement in general – to benefit their own stance, corroborate white racism, and ascend the ladder within America culture. Oppressed people of any stripe are always quick to forget that they are quite often the beneficiaries of another people’s suffering. (Johnny Cochrane interestingly makes note of this in his autobiography Journey to Justice when he describes how the former LA community of west of Main Street went from being a Japanese-American middle class neighborhood to a New Black Middle Class enclave post WW2).

I struggle to understand Jews who do not see the actions of Israel as being evil and draconian in terms of how they regard and oppress the Arabs and Africans of the occupied territory once known purely as Palestine. Do we all suffer from our own selective memory, our own bludgeoning “cops in the head”, our own mangled perception of what is right, wrong, and how we benefit or not or fit in or not?

What leaves a bad taste in my mouth is the heralding of Lyndon Johnson and his “progressive” administration for putting forth the Civil Rights Act, blah blah blah…Johnson was a politician, not a moralist. He would have sold his own mother if it had meant power. Despite his obvious support of the Civil Rights Act he was staunchly racist and a serious cartoon-example of a “good old boy” white Southern cracker. His recorded conversations reveal how natural it was for him to refer to blacks as “Niggers” constantly in conversations held in the oval office (you can hear these recordings on YouTube). Jim Garrison, who charged the United States government in a coup d’état against President Kennedy implied that Johnson himself was even marginally involved in the JFK assassination, so what on earth would convince people he cared about Black people simply because he patronized us and realized he was already in a losing battle…America had to make legislative changes in the 1960’s – the pressure was too much to bear as we the far left was gaining major strides in this country and throughout the world and a Black men protecting himself at all costs against the cruelty and hate of his government would not go unheeded. It is pressure and resistance that always creates legal changes and it either hits you in the wallet or in the head. The dollar or the bullet.

Are we “a virus in shoes” as the late great Bill Hicks once proclaimed? I think we are. Whether we are killing animals or each other, Man is interminably doomed and his shameful celebration of malevolence only continues to prove that while there may not be a god – there is certainly a devil. And he weaves and works his way through the actions of human beings in a way that is profoundly shocking and mysterious. Why? Because, supposedly, everything is all about money. Or the subjugation of one group over another. Throughout history and psychology, all things, all of our spiritual carbon footprints could be whittled down to either of these causes, often both, as Capitalism is a complex duet of both avarice and racism. We are pathetic.

White racists stand amidst the carnage and destruction they proudly create in Wilmington, North Carolina on November 10, 1898 [courtesy of Speller Street Films, artwork by Wolly McNair]
White racists stand amidst the carnage and destruction they proudly create in Wilmington, North Carolina on November 10, 1898 [courtesy of Speller Street Films, artwork by Wolly McNair]                         
                                                                             *

Let’s get back to the checkered past and moral confusion of the Democrats. What a fascinating and morbid history our political parties have purely in terms of their formation, definitions, and self-preservation. For it was on November 10, 1898 North Carolina Democrats enabled a White Mob to engage in a massacre that left at least 100 Blacks dead (the exact number is somewhere between 60 and in the hundreds – the records are murky about this for obvious reasons). For some reason it was the political affiliation alone that stood out to me when learning this information in Christopher Everett’s new and revealing documentary Wilmington On Fire.

First of all, I had no clue that Wilmington was at one point one of the most cosmopolitan centers in all of the USA, in fact one of the biggest and most economically inspired cities in the world before 1898. Wilmington On Fire does a fantastic job relaying all of this information. It was one of the most diverse cities with (yes!) black-owned and white-owned shops side by side in downtown Wilmington. The Black middle class was so successful, some even had their own butlers and pianos. This puts a whole new twist on the 19th century Black life doesn’t it? In fact, what most of us can’t admit: there were more powerfully linked and healthier connections amongst black businessmen and their communities well before the official rise and fall of Jim Crow segregation laws in the USA. This warrants serious rumination.

Obviously this kind of “renaissance” and “progress” of humanity offended racists and white supremacists to their very core, many of which were staunch members and supporters of the Democratic Party. Republicans back then still had the air of liberalism attached to their party.

But meanings and their associations’ change and context – always context! – will always be the end all-be all. Still, it is no less alarming that Americans have a skewered view of the past, identities, and supposed meanings. Perhaps if we regarded political parties as complicated as we have begun to regard our sexual identities or proclivities we may see that there is more to “politics” than meets the eye; more to the values of a political party than its typically regarded associations.

Does it not amuse you  that Hollywood actor Wendell Pierce insanely defends the likes of Hilary Clinton and the Democrats legacy? While once again context is vital here, had the actor done this to a Trump supporter, I wouldn’t even mention it. I would casually admire the act for what it’s worth, shrugging off yet another ploy and performance from our nation’s true capital: the throes of Hollyweird.

Even if an actor of Pierce’s modest-stature (commercially speaking) is so disgruntled by a Bernard Sanders supporter or another candidate – he should take time to remember that political parties mean, essentially, nothing. Pierce should spend time putting weight or interest behind Christopher Everett’s excellent movie opposed to paying the state $1,000 bail as a result of his fractious encounter with a Sanders supporter.

*

The Movie

About the infamous 1898 massacre of Wilmington’s black businesses and citizens, Christopher Everett’s directorial debut is an unpretentious, direct, and minimalist portrait of the coup d’état created by the white North Carolina Democratic Party in an attempt to broker the lives and future of Wilmington and eventually the entire state – ensuring the legacy and rebirth of a rekindled and acknowledged form of legally sanctioned racism, 35 years after the civil war and the USA’s official outlaw of slavery.  As Dr. Umar Johnson fluently explains, after the Civil War in 1865 – a cloud hung over the Ex-Confederate Southern white men who couldn’t bring themselves to accept the fact that they had lost a war – not to President Lincoln or the Yankees up North but to their own former slaves! We forget or choose not to remember that Black Americans fought against some of their former slave owners as Union soldiers. And the Union never would have won the Civil War had it not been for the Black soldiers who fought for themselves… and on behalf of the Union.

In retaliation and exasperation, white supremacists who governed the Democratic Party in North Carolina sought to retaliate and officially install a racist system that had been supposedly eradicated some 30 years prior as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Confederates’ dream to restore White unity and Black servitude reached such a grizzled mania that an impassioned yet calculated plot to excise the Black businesses and citizens of Wilmington completely. Independent researcher Kent Chatfield shows us copies of WB McKoy’s pamphlet of 1897, The White Government Union a constitution and bylaws created by the North Carolina Democratic Party whose sole aim was to instill white supremacy government.

The film opens with Ness Lee’s powerful track, “Voice of The Regular People” produced by Illastrate with sampled echoes of Curtis Mayfield’s inimitable falsetto heard wailing, “I’m going to war to find my brother!” is well used here and the closing number of the film has one of the best uses of anthemic protest music that I can think of in any movie since Children of Men’s closing with John Lennon’s “Free The People.” The closing number by James Diallo (produced by Michael ‘Sarkastix’ Harris) in this case is the original and haunting, “It’s a Massacre” – a moody atmospheric poetic hip hop tune that is as defiant and soulful as the film itself. The rest of the music is sparsely and confidently scored by Matthew Head.

We learn in Wilmington On Fire that the White Government Union was a more urbane and far more treacherous terrorist organization than its backyard cousin the Ku Klux Klan for example. These were men who were out for blood, had serious connections and money, and were not going to stop until they removed all Black power-brokers, cultural influence, and existence in Wilmington, North Carolina. The White Government Union’s de-facto militias – known as the “redshirts” – once again, unlike the Klan did not hide their faces and acted like savage storm-troopers upon the African-American community and, as the Nazis did, acted in accordance with some of the most strategic and wicked propaganda put forth by white racists in Wilmington in order to stir up hate and fear against the Blacks. Their vile use of rape as a fear tactic and as a way to protect the white purity of the white woman is on par with the mechanisms later used by the Nazis in the 1930’s. Who knows?   I imagine Hitler and his henchmen being the history fanatics that they were no doubt impressed and inspired by the methods used by the White Government Union.

Activist & Radio Host Larry Reni Thomas declares sadly “Wilmington – the town – is synonymous with racial violence.” Thomas ceaselessly fights on behalf of descendants of the victims of the 1898 Wilmington riot.
Activist & Radio Host Larry Reni Thomas declares sadly “Wilmington – the town – is synonymous with racial violence.” Thomas ceaselessly fights on behalf of descendants of the victims of the 1898 Wilmington riot. 

                                                                           *

Wilmington On Fire was made to enlighten, inform, and arouse interest in not only a slice of American history, but also a deeply troubling event that has been swept under the carpet and seldom mentioned.   A touchstone of racism and quite honestly one of the multitudinous events that has occurred to Black people in North America alone that helps make-up the Black Holocaust – a stream of harrowing events that Western academics and historians continually downplay in favor of the gargantuan numbers involved in the Jewish Holocaust in the confines of Nazi death-camps. Still, if it were a numbers game they would lose. According to SE Anderson, somewhere between 15 and 60 million Black lives were destroyed as a result of the transatlantic slave trade alone. And the horror continues to this day. Each isolated act of terror makes up another patchwork in the terrible mighty quilt known as Modern Culture As Created by the Anglo in What Is Now Known as The United States of America.

Yet, many African-Americans still find it hard to reconcile their past in this country alone. Randall Robinson in his excellent book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks mentions his exasperation via a casual discussion he had with author Walter Mosley with Blacks’ seeming unwillingness to acknowledge their tortured past by downplaying and literally disabling the commercial business of such well-intentioned films like Beloved based on the Toni Morrison classic. Because it deals with slavery they ignored it. That’s probably even truer for the greater mainstream’s embarrassing avoidance of the entire work of genius Haile Gerima. And while pop culture has embraced a Disney-fied, eroticized, and gleefully sanitized “ANTEBELLUM SLAVE & SOUTHERN CIVIL RIGHTS” movie genre (Miss Burning to Clara’s Heart to The Help to 12 Years a Slave, etc) – most of the serious art films or documentaries go unnoticed or un-appreciated because of their innate passion or style or singular vision. Sometimes it’s because of all three – whether it’s serious protest dramas like Nothing But a Man or later radical Black-helmed pictures like Sam Greenlee & Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door – there’s always a distinct difference in the independent filmmaker’s vision and those seeking to exploit, pander, or simply fulfill a Liberal-checklist of obligations for some media company to fulfill. This must always be taken into account when you watch any film, especially a documentary: Ask, “Is this necessary?” And then ask, “Would this director be willing to suffer for giving us this information?”

A screening at Cucalorus Film Festival in North Carolina proved to be the most attended film screening in the festival’s 21 years of existence. A huge deal for a guerrilla film project. Poster designed by Marcus Kiser.
A screening at Cucalorus Film Festival in North Carolina proved to be the most attended film screening in the festival’s 21 years of existence. A huge deal for a guerrilla film project. Poster designed by Marcus Kiser.

*

Documentaries, like narrative movies, do have a point-of-view. And because they are not dramas or crafted fictions – it does not mean that they are less entertaining and/or less subjective. All truth in art is beauty and contains a POV. It is not the events being reported that is debatable. That is fact. But the HOW they are being related is where the truth of a subject comes into play.

 

Ken Burns’ obnoxious and smug documentaries and explorations of American life are often comfy and bold history lessons. He gives us tons of FACTS…but no genuine HEART. His movies are ultimately shallow and soulless despite their technical perfection. His speakers themselves come off indulgent and sanctimonious. Burns’ clean and sterile mannered PBS approach may have helped to kill and generalize the documentary in the past 25 years but it also helped to usher in legion of filmmakers trying to reclaim power and truth from the establishment – each in their own way.

By contrast, Everett’s “talking heads” comprise a wonderful cast of characters, if you will. From the nervy and dutifully concerned Kent Chatfield (a white brilliant researcher whose rational deductions and drove of information would make Oliver Stone weep; he grew up hearing older men recount their passed down recollections of how whites massacred blacks in 1898) to the regal Dr. Lewin Manly (a beautifully grave man who reminds one of Thurgood Marshall and is a direct descendant of Wilmington’s Black newspaper mogul, Alex Manly, whose Daily Record printing press was arguably the main target in the massacre) to compassionate and dynamic community activists like Daawud Muhammad. But all those interviewed come off extremely intelligent and understandably concerned about the effects of this horrible event and its aftermath 118 years later…

If film can be an art and a weapon – the documentary is an often thrilling and deadly weapon in the arsenal, at times a best kept secret. For all documentaries seek to make its audience confront something. If narrative directors infused their scripts with this lesson – how much more dynamic and dangerous dramatic pictures would be!

And yet documentaries have become a particular and strange new pornography in our culture.  It has become obvious to me that over the past decade a large number of filmmakers who fancy themselves as “progressive” and “Liberal-loving” humane freedom fighters have invested a great deal of time, energy, and money in making documentaries – but not truly advocating any direct social change. They are carefully crafted movies that give facts and tons of information about terrible events or current happenings – and yet don’t actually implore their audiences to do anything. It is not necessary for a film to scream its message to its audience, quite often even the most graphic documentary doesn’t have to do that…and yet it doesn’t hurt if a documentary is a bit forward and incendiary even to its own viewer. Wilmington On Fire toes this line – it is up front about how it feels and how its director regards his subject.

And what I like most about it – is that it is a “simple” American story. By focusing in on his own state’s history and legacy, Everett combines the ideal Pete Seeger coaxed us to consider: think globally, but act locally.

You don’t have to go all the way to Iraq to collect data on terrorism – often all you need to do is investigate your own state or cities history. The United States was founded upon terrorism: where have we all been?

*

Film As Resistance

 

“Yes, I’m for the compensation for the victims and ancestors of this riot mainly because our ancestors fought long and hard for what they had – to be taken away from them because of color…In some form or fashion, they (the state of North Carolina) should compensate.”

– Faye Chaplin, great granddaughter of victim Thomas C. Miller

*

When George Zimmerman recently auctioned off the 9mm pistol he used to kill Trayvon Martin in no less a cold-blooded way– the overall reaction was simply “Oh, he’s nuts. Ignore him. Just another American story.” And while that is quite true, our tacit agreement with the racist establishment and the “American Way of Life” is one that is rapidly begin to drown us all – it is corroding any sense of sanity we have for one reason only. It provides no closure.

What kind of closure? A closure that results in the killing of one’s oppression (be it person or system), the slaying of one’s dragon in order for us to be as Joseph Campbell famously declared the hero of our own life.

The bloodbath that occurred in Wilmington 1898 – the men and women and children fighting for their lives literally as a result of a racist attack bears spiritual resemblance to all that follows later in the 20th century from the wrongly-accused-of-rape-Scottsboro Boys to Emmett Till to the fire hoses on blacks in Mississippi to lynchings (take your pick) to Rudolph Giuliani’s reign of terror on Black men in NYC in the 1990s to the bizarrely perfunctory executions of Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland. And in all this – one must ask where the resistance lies. Why do we take it? And do we truly feel that man will change and if so how long must we wait?

Perhaps Beckett was right: the absurdity of waiting for anything to happen is our biggest tragic quality. We wait. And we wait. And we believe the waiting will remove the pain.

Throughout all this waiting is the argument for reparations paid to the descendants of the victims of this atrocity. Descendants such as Faye Chaplin, whose great-great grandfather was Thomas Miller – a generous and successful entrepreneur in Wilmington who not only worked well paid jobs but ran his own businesses. Chaplin estimates the property, money, and legacy destroyed could easily amount to millions. And while she is probably right the moral conundrum that Wilmington On Fire presents is not the reparations debate – although that is a central problem and something I myself would like to see. The centerpiece however is, as independent researcher Kent Chatfield proclaims clearly, that the state of North Carolina was involved in a massive coup and act of terrorism that to this day they have not widely conceded, admitted, acknowledged and taken steps towards restitution. Why? Because the same white racism that the North Carolina democrats employed and enabled with venal glee in 1898 is the very same racism and mode of thinking that governs not only North Carolina, but our entire society today. Racism and its tactics may have grown more sophisticated and clever, but its results and impact are the same and, quite possibly, even more dangerous today – in a world where it is becoming less clear as to who or what exactly can help you fight injustice and precisely…what that even means. Look at how we reacted to a force majeure like Hurricane Katrina. Would our collective response had been any different if we knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it had been choreographed on purpose?

No, sometimes pure straight resistance does. Why no one has cracked and tried to kill the psychotic Zimmermans or launch a full-on offensive upon Police stations or even judicial offices that govern and enable the egregious racism, the devilish actions of the sociopaths that swear allegiance to the false gods and hateful order of this country – is beyond me. Resistance comes in many shades.

The making of this film is Everett’s own act of resistance, his own rebellion. His own artistic defiance: I am making this film whether you want me to or not and I am not doing it to get into Sundance or for a distribution deal or for a glitzy write up in the Times. I’m doing it because I have to.

His elegantly minimalist approach to filmmaking serves him well.

*

So do we learn from the past? I don’t know. I can’t honestly say yes, but the work of any artist is always an affirming one, is always hopeful – because the act of creation is always positive proof that something can be learned and digested from our sins. One is not driven to make write a book or compose a song purely for the hell of it unless they are cynical craftsmen looking to cash-in on a trend perhaps or the latest cause. But a filmmaker disclosing painful truths, like the great muckrakers of the past, or the crusading shaman is akin to the African griots who are desperately trying to heal and put forth knowledge.

 

I commend Christopher Everett and encourage everyone to see Wilmington On Fire and then see how it may apply it to their own lives. And if you don’t know, then I suggest you watch it again.

Wilmington On Fire is now available on streaming! 

Vimeo On Demand: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/wilmingtononfire 

Travis Pearson’s “America Street”

In 2017 I had the pleasure of meeting filmmaker Travis Pearson.  His film “America Street” about two brothers Sota and Buck and the trauma experienced by formerly incarcerated Black Men who attempt to re-enter mainstream society haunted me and moved me in a way few modern movies do.  Below is the original essay/review I wrote for the film’s DVD/Blu Ray release.

Diffused and muted on a wet Charleston day.  That’s the abiding and earthy feeling of what Travis Pearson’s America Street most imbues in me when I think about it.  That and the bittersweet horror of trying to “get back” home when home has become an abstract and ephemeral place, literally and metaphorically…

AS1
Unable to literally speak, Bucks must learn how to communicate with his 6 year old son…

From the poor Southern vernacular and slang of Sota to the salt-of-the earth homilies of the Mother to the need for work and ‘the waltzing matilda’ having lunch under “America Street” sign to a random lesson on the 1739 Stoner Rebellion and the imagining of Harriet Tubman as an American Joan of Arc to the conception of Daddy Bucks — too poor to afford a ‘war’, although he’s a soldier nonetheless (if Chaplin’s Tramp and waif were a black and humorless 37-year old ex-con he’d be Bucks) Pearson’s beautiful neo-realist approach contains a rawness and honesty seldom seen in American pictures where exploitation is not the aim.  Especially in films concerning black Americans and Southern or rural culture.

The film is not a tourist film for white audiences nor does it pander to its black audiences and that is why it succeeds as an honest portrait of the underdog, the maligned, and the heartbroken.  It eschews all bourgeois patronizing of the working class and ex-convicts who try re-enter society (all too common in cinema) and the judicial problems of the black underclass because its director identifies with his characters. Pearson is an artist whose vision is genuine and unflinching as he makes you deal with cold hard realities.  Even homosexuality is relayed in a way a far more courageous (and less stereotypical) than mainstream fare like Moonlight.

Like a shattered stained glass window, America Street is a mirror of a fractured society – one that wants to be whole but doesn’t have the resources to put itself back together again.  A gritty, well-made drama with honest performances that seeks to celebrate and indict aspects of not only Charleston life but American society – America Street is replete with its hypocrisies, injustices, and confusion.  When Bucks vocalizes it is like a yelp from the back of his throat that explodes. And that’s exactly what the film does: it’s explodes and does more than “pack a punch.”  It makes you find both your heart and your mind.  It entertains as well as enlightens.  And that is all we can ask our artists who try to go into the places we choose to ignore.

— Dennis Leroy Kangalee

NYC April 28, 2018

You can learn more about Travis Pearson and Avidaya Films by visiting his Facebook account or Tumblr:

https://www.facebook.com/americastreetfilm/

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